California Road Trippin' - 7 Drives Worth Taking

2 January 2015
Read Time: 3.7 mins

Los Angeles is just the start of a driving holiday in the USA, or driving on a holiday in the USA.

It’s famed for gridlock and endless Interstates with multi-storey spaghetti junctions, but you don’t have to go far to find rewarding drives that will work for anyone.

If you’re into canyon carving there are plenty of choices nearby, if you like the magic of long-distance motoring you can head anywhere but West – where the waters of the Pacific limit the choices – and if you’re looking to bag a bargain there are outlet malls within an hour’s easy commuting.

 Let the top down on California's best road trips (Getty)

There are obvious drives in the City of Angels, like the grind down Interstate 405 to the magic of Disneyland and the Pacific Coast Highway that arrows due North past Malibu towards San Francisco and beyond. Driving is the best way to get to Venice Beach, Santa Monica at the end of Route 66, Santa Monica and even down to the northern tip of Mexico.

But there are also some hidden gems, some close to the Tom Bradley Terminal where most Australian flights dock and others a little further into the Californian scenery. Sometimes it’s about the road, often it’s about the destination, and many times it’s about both – and more.

Choosing a holiday car means finding one that’s right for your roads and needs, since a family-sized seven seater SUV is unlikely to take kindly to miles of curves and a Mustang will be wasted on carrying countless bags back from the mall.

But the good thing is that American hire companies have something for everyone and every wallet.

Once you’ve settled in behind the wheel, and feel comfortable on the other side of the car and the road, here are seven suggestions for getting the best from your California dream.

1. Rodeo Drive

 Rodeo Drive could be the beginning of your journey (Getty)

An easy way to start driving in Los Angeles, it’s the destination for upmarket shopping with all the designer brands laid out for an ambush in just a few blocks. There is also the Beverly Wilshire Hotel – remember Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman? – at the bottom of the shopping strip. Be warned, there is no kerb-side parking although the big brands have valet teams on duty if you have the right car and credit card.

Since you’re in the neighbourhood, there is also good window shopping and buying on trendy Melrose Avenue and in the upscale Beverley Centre. Rodeo Drive is usually only a 30-minute drive from the airport.

2. Highway 1

 Hearst Castle is a Highway 1 sight worth pulling over for (Getty)

Heading up the Pacific Coast Highway is a dream drive for many people, especially the ones who want to do it in a convertible Ford Mustang. It’s a two-day run to SanFran with plenty of reasons to stop along the way, from old-world Santa Barbara to the Hearst Castle – built by a 1920s media mogul, complete with free-range Zebras – to Morro Bay and San Simeon on the coast and then the rich strip at Carmel and Monterey.

Be warned, though, it can be a long haul and it’s not all picture-postcard stuff on the edge of the Pacific, although you cannot go past the 17-mile drive – with a toll – for a look at how the rich live in the ‘states and a peek at the Pebble Beach golf course.

3. Angeles Crest Highway

 Take your feet off the pedals and sink them into the water at Lake Arrowhead (Getty)

Just out of Pasadena, which sits on the north-east edge of greater LA, is a truly great driving road that carries you up into the mountains on the path to Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead.

I2 is as twisty and enjoyable as anything in the USA and was once the road where tearaway fifties screen idol James Dean liked to play in his collection of sports cars.

Need some roadside tunes? Catherine Britt's Driving Songs For A Journey Through The Country

More road trip inspiration? The Great American Road Trip

Inside knowledge on road tripping down the West Coast. California Dreamin' On An All-American Road Trip

4. San Diego to Borrego Springs

 T-Rex sculpture at Borrego Springs with star trails (Getty)

One of the best ways to head off into the arid California deserts is to turn off the north-south interstate from LA to San Diego through onto I67 and then I78, a route that eventually allows you to push on up to Palm Springs.

Along the way is Julian, an artsy little village, but the drive is all about the scenery as you leave the crowded coastal plain, climb the mountains and then descend the other side to Borrego Springs – described as California’s secret desert and a town of less than 4000 people where big chain stores are banned.

5. Palm Springs to Idyllwild

 Palm Springs is a beautiful kind of world (Getty)

At the right time of year, you can drive from the desert to snow-capped mountains in less than 30 minutes. Palm Springs has all sorts of attractions, including the former homes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and the revamped art deco hotels used for clandestine weekend getaways in the glory days of Hollywood.

In total contrast, Idyllwild in the San Jacinto mountains is a hippy German Alpine town with a more than a touch of Nimbin.

6. Crystal Cove

 The beach at Crystal Cove (Getty)

Just south of Laguna Beach, itself a major tourist attraction on the run south along I405, is the Crystal Cove National Park. The place to go is the retro 50s beach at the Cove, complete with an old-school diner, that was once a South Seas movie set and is claimed to have changed very little in more than 100 years. Away from the coast, the park is great for hiking and mountain biking.

7. Sunset Boulevard

 Driving down the Sunset strip (Getty)

No trip to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to the Hollywood Hills, with a spot of celebrity spotting along the way. The Sunset strip takes you from West Hollywood all the way to the coast near Malibu, passing through some of the most expensive real estate in the world and the homes of the stars.

You can check out giant billboards advertising the last big-screen movie releases, drop into the historic Chateau Marmont hotel, pick up a map of the stars’ homes, and finish with lunch on the coast or a visit to the historic Getty Villa.

Paul Gover

Paul Gover is Australia’s leading motoring journalist and has been on the car beat for more than 30 years. In that time he’s won at Bathurst, driven thousands of new cars, interviewed Jeremy Clarkson, and travelled to 45 countries. He says he still learns something new every day.